Grouse: Whatever Happened to the Word?

Flickr photo by Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

This spectacular looking bird is a Greater Sage Grouse. I also just found a free pattern for a pair of cozy slippers named Grouse.

But those uses of the word grouse are not the reason for this post. My first encounter with the word was in a line from one of my favorite Dorothy Parker poems - Symptom Recital.

“I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse.”

I didn't encounter the word again until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally saw the movie Lincoln.

What an incredible movie. I was moved by so much of it. Especially this line. "This settles the fate for all coming time. Not only of millions now in bondage. But of unborn millions to come." It sent shivers through me. Those unborn millions to come. That's me. My family.

During the movie, I also noticed Lincoln used the word grouse, meaning to complain or grumble. It struck me that he used the word a few times. But nobody uses the word anymore. At least in American English.

According to Merriam-Webster online, it was first used in that manner in 1887. In the movie, Lincoln was using it in 1865 and Dorothy Parker lived from 1893 to 1967. So it seems that grouse was being used from around the mid 1800s to the early to mid 1900s.

I couldn't help but wonder if there might not be more to grouse's disappearance from modern American English. "Who knows about this this stuff?" Linguists! Two of them were nice enough to share their thoughts with me.

Penelope Eckert of Stanford University didn't think that there was much mystery in the disappearance of grouse from use today. "Words come and go." 

But she does have a more personal memory of the word.  "Grouse was my father's preferred word for 'complain', particularly to say "quit grousing". He'd be 110 now, and I haven't heard it since he died 40 years ago."

We may not realize that the words that we use convey so much to others. Have you ever thought that that the mere mention of a seldom used word could conjure up memories and emotion from long ago?

My mother and I have a word that always reminds us of the other. Taupe. For a while in the 80's, at least in my opinion, my mother was obsessed with the word. For whatever reason, I fixated on it and would tease her whenever she would use it, which would be constantly! So now, whenever my mother hears taupe, she thinks of me and it cracks her up and I think of her too!

But back to grouse. John McWhorter of Columbia University doesn't believe that you can always say that one certain thing causes us not to use a word anymore and that chance may play a large role in which words survive.

McWhorter, who by the way did a great TED Talk, says that grouse may have been a literary word.
Our sense that it was used more in the past may be because in the past, most writing was formal in tone and/or written about people of a certain class stratum.

That would include memoirs and letters written by people in the mid-1800s, and Tony Kushner may possibly have had people using the word in his script based on what people WROTE at the time. It's a common, usually harmless and almost unavoidable mistake -- we will never be able to hear how Mary Lincoln spoke over breakfast.

Of course just maybe the word was more common coin then; here's where my lack of study comes in. Could be that surveys of old-time rural folk would reveal GROUSE as a kitchen-table word in the old days that just fell out of fashion.
It makes you wonder. What would the Lincolns have sounded like over breakfast? And you know where my mind is going. What would they have been eating?

Now I was left with some more food for thought by McWhorter. He mentioned a "new to me" fairly modern artistic use of the word grouse from the musical Hairspray.

The line spoken by Penny is "Well Tracy, I hate to grumble or grouse." This usage has never worked for McWhorter.
It's clearly just recruited to rhyme with the word HOUSE. This gum-popping, and in fact mentally unimpressive, character would be highly unlikely to use the word (even in 1962).
Well, that's about all that I have for the word. Though you can find some more comments about grouse by clicking here, if you scroll down to the bottom.

Also, I have to make note that today is the first day of Spring. I hope it's a lot more Springy where you are than here. We had another snowstorm yesterday. This winter has been pretty horrible and I'm ready for warm weather. But I'm trying not to grumble or grouse....

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